Summer Camps Teach Youth about Homelessness, Food Justice and Hydrology | Community Idea Stations


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Summer Camps Teach Youth about Homelessness, Food Justice and Hydrology

From music and dance to sports and academics, dozens of summer camps across the state provide opportunities for enrichment. In Central Virginia, one group offers teens a chance to help improve their community. Catherine Komp has more in this edition of Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find out about HandsOn Greater Richmond and the Teen Impact program and Youth Philanthropy Project.


Teen Impact is a summer service learning program launched five years ago by the non-profit HandsOn Greater Richmond. The initiative exposes youth to challenges in the community, while also demonstrating how groups come together to create solutions. Amy Yates is the Teen Impact Program Coordinator.

Amy Yates: It gives kids a taste for all the different non-profits that work in the area and all the ways they could be doing to help and volunteering in different ways. I’ve already finished two weeks and I’ve been getting a lot of emails and texts from all my campers asking how they can stay involved and keep on doing the work they started doing.

This year, the organization has five camps focusing on three different themes: housing and homelessness; urban agriculture and food justice; and water and ecology.

John Hay: Today we’re going to walk down some of the floodwall walkways...

At the RVAHydro camp, youth begin the day’s activities on the south side of Richmond’s floodwall.

Hay: Does anyone know when the biggest flood was, what year?

Floodwall Supervisor John Hay begins with a bit of history, pointing out how high the water was during the flood of 1771 - an estimated 45 feet above normal.

Hay: So if we were standing here in 1771 the water would have been well above our heads.

The youth learn that subsequent floods and hurricanes in the 20th Century led to discussions of a flood protection plan, and eventually the floodwall built by the Army Corps of Engineers. To demonstrate how the floodgates work, Hay takes the youth down the raised levee and unlocks one of the manual wheels.

Hay: What these gates do is they close and they have wedges on them, so that when they close they hit those wedges and it gets tight.

A visit to the pump station and northside floodwall rounds out the three hour tour, where Hay lets the youth close one of the floodwall doors. The students here range from age 12 to 15, and for some, it’s their first time visiting the floodwall. Hugh McFarlane is 12 years old and a student at Midlothian Middle School.

Hugh McFarlane: This is my first year and it just looked really interesting and I really wanted to do the water one because I like to see water and what it has the ability to do and I like plants too, I just like nature all-in-all.

Riley Johnston: I really liked learning about the floodwall, because I knew there was a bad hurricane, but I didn’t think it was really, really, really bad... and I could see how much effort they put into it and it was a really cool experience.

Riley Johnston is an 8th grader at Matoaca Middle School in Chesterfield. Already a volunteer in his community, he said he saw a flyer about the Teen Impact camps and was drawn to the week-long study of hydrology.

Riley Johnston: I choose this one particularly because I like water and I live right next Pocahontas State Park so I can go and see the water and I love to see other ways I can help my park and everything about the water.

Amy Yates: So we’re going to go over there, I saw a lot of trash...

After lunch, the youth put on plastic gloves and clean up some trash at Shiplock Park. Next they’re off to work with Richmond Community Garden Coordinator Vicky Campbell doing maintenance and planting on the floodwall garden.

B-Roll Campbell: Now this is what we’re going to do, when we weed, we’ll put it in these peat moss bags...

Youth grab gloves and garden tools and remove the weeds that overgrew the six beds built into the north side of the floodwall. Campbell has been working with the group at several sites around the city.

Vicky Campbell: This week we did a service project at George Wythe, they have indoor courtyards full of edible landscaping. And Friday they’ll come to one of my community gardens by Creighton Court and they’ll raise beds and put gutters in for rainwater collection.

Today they’re planting low-water perennials.

Vicky Campbell: In this particular one, we’re putting peat moss in and we’re talking about conserving water. And Friday we’re doing rainwater collection and showing them how to put gutters together into a rain barrel so that’s a really useful tool they can use.

At the other Teen Impact camps, youth helped clean and organize Hilliard House, an organization that helps homeless women and their children. They also followed the route local vegetables take from harvest at Tricycle Gardens to a corner store. Coordinator Yates says the camps provide youth with unique first-hand experiences that show them their potential to make positive change in the community.

Yates: And so to be able to expose them to these areas where we’re walking around and realizing there’s no where to get groceries and having them think about that and what that would mean if their mom didn’t have a car and couldn’t walk umpteen miles to get groceries, can’t even take it on the bus, it really makes them think about what life is like for others and how they can help make the community better.

Each Teen Impact camp costs $50 for the week, and youth bring their own lunch. HandsOn Greater Richmond also offers partial and full scholarships. And the organization has a program during the school year called the Youth Philanthropy Project. A partnership with The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, youth learn leadership skills and get to allocate grants to youth-led community service projects. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.